Zen koans are stories that are meant to make you think. These lead to questions that do not always have correct answers. The purpose of a koan is to challenge your mental model and go beyond what you thought to have understood. One of my favorite koans is – what is the sound of one hand clapping?
As a teenager, I used to make my right hand alone clap and proudly say “this is the sound of one hand clapping”. This made me feel smart. But I was missing the point of the koan. There is no correct answer, but there is a correct response- to think, to meditate on what you think you know so that you realize you do not truly know it all. I have read that the answer to the sound of one hand clapping is any sound you want it to be and also that the correct answer is silence with the gesture of one hand clapping.
I had a curious thought recently – what is the sound of one hand clapping in light of systems thinking? Simplistically put, systems thinking is the understanding that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This concept was first put forward by Aristotle. Aristotle taught that the whole is made up of its parts but it still differs from the sum of its parts. One key concept in systems thinking is the emergent properties in a system. Emergent properties are the unique characteristics of a system that are generated only from the interaction of different parts in the system. The emergent properties constitute the “wholeness”. No part taken alone can generate the emergent property. An example of an emergent property is the ability of a bicycle to go from one point to another. This ability only happens when a rider interacts with the different parts of the bicycle like the pedal, the steering, etc. Sometimes these emergent properties are designed into the system and sometimes these emergent properties are not clear when the system is being designed. The reductionist thinking is to take things apart and ignore the interactions between the parts. This is also referred to as mechanistic thinking. This type of thinking leads to local optimization which ultimately results in an inferior system performance.
Coming back to the question – the sound of clapping only happens with two hands. However, just by having two hands, there is no sound of clapping. The sound only happens when the two hands interact with each other. One hand alone does not generate a “half clap” such that two hands creates a “full clap” as the sum of two “half claps”. The two hands have to physically come in contact with certain force, and this generates the sound of clapping. The sound is an emergent property. Looking at the sound of one hand clapping is reductionist thinking. The emergent property of the sound of clapping come when two hands are taken together and the interaction understood.
Dr. Deming has talked about managing people from a systems view. If there are two people, A and B, then the true capability from these two people working together is not simply A + B. The true capability is A + B + AB – E, where AB is the interaction between A and B, and E is an error term I inserted to represent any noise that may arise due to the interaction with the environment. The most important role of a manager is not to manage people, but to manage the interactions between the people, and make it easy for them to do their job.
I will finish off with the koan of the sound of one hand clapping.
The master of Kennin temple was Mokurai, Silent Thunder. He had a little protege named Toyo who was only twelve years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit the master’s room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen or personal guidance in which they were given koans to stop mind-wandering.
Toyo wished to do sanzen also.
“Wait a while,” said Mokurai. “You are too young.”
But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.
In the evening little Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of Mokurai’s sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.
“You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai. “Now show me the sound of one hand.”
Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. “Ah, I have it!” he proclaimed.
The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.
“No, no,” said Mokurai. “That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You’ve not got it at all.”
Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. “What can the sound of one hand be?” He happened to hear some water dripping. “I have it,” imagined Toyo.
When he next appeared before his teacher, Toyo imitated dripping water.
“What is that?” asked Mokurai. “That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.”
In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.
He heard the cry of an owl. This also was refused.
The sound of one hand was not the locusts.
For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.
At last little Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. “I could collect no more,” he explained later, “so I reached the soundless sound.”
Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Never Let a Mistake Go To Waste.